With my, as they say, newly-minted teaching certificate/PGCE in hand, I went for an interview in the summer of 1974 for a job as a lecturer at this relatively new technical college in Uxbridge. Set amongst green fields in a far outer suburb of London, I, along with several others, got a job that day. Job finding was quite a bit easier then.
The downside was that, to get there, I had to commute on the Underground from my home in Belsize Park and that took over an hour each way and 60p! It was a third of the way to Oxford! But I didn’t care. My 24 year old self was employed with a salary of £2300/year (including a “London Allowance”!) and I looked forward to starting in September.
What did I teach at Uxbridge Tech? Two very different subjects that straddled the academic and vocational branches at this College: A-Level Sociology and Liberal Studies. And what a world apart they were.
My timetable for 75/76 is below. You won’t make sense of it but you’ll notice that I coloured it beautifully and I’ll tell you that the green L/S stands for my Liberal Studies classes and that the red is for my Sociology classes –about half and half.
Teaching A-Level Sociology
The academic part was to teach A-level Sociology to, generally, middle-class kids from the local area who would mostly be going onto a university or a polytechnic. The students had to spend 5 hours per week with me over two years, so we got to know each other very well. I taught them the main sociological theories at the time including Structural-Functionalism, Social Conflict and Symbolic Interactionism. They also had to learn about the sociology “greats”, including Durkheim, Weber, Marx and Parsons.
Along the way, we certainly were able to talk about social issues and I tried to make them passionate to learn how the world around them worked. Of course, I had a bias towards the Social Conflict theories and Marx but I tried, at least at first, to be neutral.
This 300+ hours of teaching led to The Final Exams – two three-hour exams at the end of their second year that counted 100%; marked not by me but by an external examiner. Even though I’d been with them for so long, I had no input in their marks. That was the way it was for A-level exams then. Heaven help the poor student who might have felt ill on the day of an exam.
Away to Wales
I loved organizing excursions with this class and the big one was a week away to Wales on some pretext of learning about the Sociology of Rural Communities. The main event, however, was climbing Mount Snowdon, the tallest mountain in England and Wales, and hanging out with each other. We also went for a ride on the famous Ffestiniog steam railway train.
Teaching Liberal Studies – A World Apart
The students in my Liberal Studies classes were not going onto university. They already had jobs as apprentices in skilled manual trades. They were “released” from those jobs to come to college for one day a week (hence “day-release”) to learn the skills of their trade, be it as Motor Vehicle Technicians, Heating and Ventilating Engineers, Welders, Gasfitters or Electricians.
Most of the lads (and they were 98% white men) were from working class families and, with their apprenticeship, they were, generally speaking, heading towards secure, well-paying life-long employment in their trade; not to mention having the potential of home ownership. Not so nowadays but that’s another story.
During that one day in college learning their trade, they were required to spend one hour of that day with a Liberal Studies teacher (that’s me) whose sole purpose was to “broaden their horizons”. It was based on good intentions: vocational learners (“the working class”) should engage with at least some form of general education to become more well-rounded by giving them the opportunity to think critically, creatively and analytically about their experiences of work and in society.
There was no syllabus nor exams for these courses; therefore we had complete autonomy over what to teach them. And we didn’t have to grade them either.
We were encouraged to use innovative and experimental techniques, along with establishing an “enthusiastic relationship” with our students.
I soon learned that the reason we needed to be enthusiastic with them is because many of the students didn’t want to take a Liberal Studies class, especially if it happened to land on their last hour of their day at college.
“Why am I wasting my time here with you when I could be back in the shop learning my trade – or going out for a smoke?”
“In order to broaden your horizons”, I replied as enthusiastically as possible. “I want to develop your interests in current affairs, the mass media, politics, and the arts in order to help you better understand yourselves and the world around you”.
“That sounds boring. Will there be an exam?”
“No exam, no tests. Just us, together, learning from each other”.
Well, that didn’t always go down well. The only way to keep the students interested was to be, well, interesting. And, as I’ve said, enthusiastic. I learned that I had to win them over with my charm and personality – and presenting what I hoped was something valuable or exciting – and maybe even useful – to get them to at least go along with me. And, if they liked me, they did go along with me. Or at least they wouldn’t create a disturbance.
Did I succeed? It varied between groups. I learned that it was especially important for me to find the “dominant” student(s) and get him (them) on my side. Then I was more likely to be fine.
“Oh, just shut up and let him get on with it”, the louder students might say and then I’d be ok.
With certain other classes, it was a constant struggle to keep their attention and it was exhausting and frustrating and I would ask myself – what am I doing here?
I learned that one advantage I did have was that I was Canadian. My North American accent prevented them from pegging me as coming from a working class or middle class background so they couldn’t immediately tell if I was “us” or “them”.
Their technical teachers sometimes also had a hard time understanding what we did and they weren’t always cheerleaders for us. Having said that, there were a few teachers I remember who really appreciated what we were trying to do and encouraged their students to engage with us. Thank goodness for them!
What did I try to teach the lads and why?
As a sociologist, I thought I’d look at how society works without talking about Durkheim or Marx! Using games, I created scenarios where we’d try to discover what the norms, mores and values are that we follow in society without even realizing it. Starting simply, I would get them to role play how they decide where to sit when they get on a bus to show how we follow norms and rules without noticing it.
As a supporter of feminism, I wanted to examine the norms and mores involved in gender role socialization – how did we learn our gender roles? What were men expected to be masculine and women feminine? Why were women expected to do all the housework? Why were women paid less than men?
As a socialist and political activist, I wanted to talk about social class and give them an understanding of how, as I saw it, capitalism worked to oppress them – without using those words.
To help them understand the notion of social class, I would show the films Seven Up! and 7 Plus Seven by director Michael Apted. I used that political documentary so many times that I knew the dialogue off by heart. But it always engaged them. Its main (and controversial premise) was that social class was so firmly entrenched in British life that you could say, as the Jesuits do, “Give me a child until 7 and I will give you the man (sic)”. That led to lively debates.
- By the way, that series continued to follow the original twelve or so 7 year olds for many decades, producing a new program every 7 years up to its latest one in 2019, 63 Up. A marvellous, if flawed, longitudinal study. Flawed because of the biases inherent in the terribly stereotyped children it originally picked – working class vibrant and cheeky; upper class snobby, stiff and pretentious.
“Let’s take a look at the newspapers you’re reading”.
Given that many of the students came barging into the classroom clutching the Sun newspaper, a notoriously populist right-wing tabloid newspaper, whose opinions they often repeated, with its Page 3 Sunshine Girl. I wanted to give them an alternative perspective.
I should add that there were other students who came in with the Mirror – a Labour Party-leaning tabloid newspaper and the Sun‘s main competitor and a debate would ensue as it which was the better paper.
We studied how the mass media worked to influence us and talked about the concept of “fake news” before that term was used. I wanted to encourage them to think for themselves and give them some intellectual challenges.
I knew, though, that not all learners wished to be emancipated by us and we had to be creative in our approaches. I quickly learned that if I could encourage a discussion or debate amongst the students themselves, that was best, instead of me telling them what to think.
Staffroom 8 – Marxist Missionaries?
I wasn’t the only Liberal Studies teacher who wanted to smuggle progressive and critical teaching into my curriculum. I had a wonderful, supportive group of teaching colleagues at Uxbridge, most of us housed in the notorious Staffroom 8 – a hotbed of political young Turks. Mostly new social sciences/humanities graduates – socialists, current or ex hippies, lovers of both folk and rock and roll, new wave cinema and old film classics – we nurtured each other, exchanging strategies about how to change the hearts and minds of “the lads” in our Liberal Studies classes – or at least how to survive until the end of the hour.
Several of the lecturers came from working class backgrounds themselves. They had made it to university and they wanted to make sure that those who wanted to could also advance and fulfil their ambitions as they had.
- Were we politically motivated Marxist missionaries, as our critics claimed, who wanted to awaken the students’ critical consciousness to enable them to emancipate themselves from their oppression? Yes!
- But could we also be seen as middle-class colonisers who paternalistically thought “we know what’s best for you”? Yes!
Could we be both at the same time? As we know, missionaries in our history were often colonisers. That was the dilemma we faced. Was it right for us to attempt to influence the students politically or even just to get them to think for themselves to give them access to “powerful knowledge”? Our conclusion continued to be yes.
What happened to Liberal Studies?
Throughout the 70s, critics of Liberal Studies continued to complain that Liberal Studies teachers were explicitly promoting radical political activism amongst their students. They noted that adherents of what was called “critical pedagogy” focused on promoting political perspectives in the classroom. That was us, as I’ve acknowledged.
In their opinion, that was not a good thing. It was biased. They also noted that the teaching of Liberal Studies had been highly variable in terms of content and quality between and within colleges. I, unfortunately, couldn’t deny that.
Our harshest critics even said that the reason we didn’t want to change is because we were too lazy to change and we didn’t want to have to think about actually measuring the impact we were having in the classroom. That’s not fair.
With the beginning of Thatcherism in the late 70s, the government began to step in and take a much larger role in “training”. Beforehand, it had been generally left up to employers and The City and Guilds (responsible for the training of apprentices in England) to do that. The seismic shift in politics was beginning to take place.
Although I wasn’t involved in the battle because I’d moved on by then, there was a significant and organized pushback on behalf of the Liberal Studies Association in England resisting these changes. But without success.
Skills became the buzz word
But what should we be teaching the apprentices instead? Instead of changing their minds, we were told that we should be teaching them more useful skills, like, well, writing, money management, increased literacy to become knowledgeable consumers, articulating your points coherently etc. That is, more utilitarian and instrumental. Much narrower that what we had been aiming to do but certainly with some merit.
In 1982, I did return to teaching in a college – Paddington College in central London. I quickly learned that “broadening the students’ horizons” and the “free-thinking” tradition of Liberal Studies had gone out the window. The battle had been lost and we were now meant to teach apprentices practical skills and our classes were now called “Communication and General Studies” instead of Liberal Studies.
By the mid-80s, there was even a syllabus and an exam! Called, City & Guilds 772, the course still brings a chill to my mind, as do the words “Hebden Bridge” – an in-joke that only my fellow lecturers from that period will get. We had competency-based checklists to fill out! Skills had become the buzzword.
But I continued to be lucky to be in staff rooms (at Paddington, it was Rooms 402 and 409) where we shared teaching strategies and resources, nourishing and encouraging each other. I’ll have more to say about working there in a future post.
I’ll go even further to tell you that for a few years in the early 1990s, when I returned to Canada, I taught at a CEGEP (Quebec’s version of a FE or Junior College) in Montreal where I was again hired to teach Sociology and what was called “Humanities” (“Philosophie” in the CEGEPs teaching in French). The latter was a compulsory course for all academic and vocational students again “to broaden their horizons”. As their teacher, I found myself, once again, having free rein as to the content I wanted to teach the students. So, in a way, I was back into my Liberal Studies mode. I did, though, have to come up with a mark/grade for them at the end of their time with me. Those courses still exist to this day in Quebec CEGEPs. Humanities/Liberal Studies Is not fully dead yet!
“The Badges Incident” with the Principal at Uxbridge
I’m getting way ahead of myself. Getting back to Uxbridge Tech in 1977, you won’t be surprised to learn that we lecturers in Staffroom 8 got into several political fisticuffs with the Principal, the big one being “The Badges Incident”.
With the rise of the fascist National Front in Britain at time, along with some NF support being seen amongst the students in our Liberal Studies classes, several of us teachers took a stand by wearing badges supporting anti-racist initiatives.
We didn’t think it would be an issue, but the Principal saw us wearing them and made it clear to the union officers that he wanted them to ask us to take them off because we shouldn’t be showing bias. We needed to be “neutral”. We refused and demanded a meeting with the Principal. He only agreed to see us one by one and not all together as we’d requested. In the end, he agreed to see two of us but, after an hour and a half of “discussion”, he didn’t budge. From my recollection, I didn’t remove my badge, but as all this had flared up just a few weeks before the summer break, we all could save face and leave it until the following September.
Being Out at Uxbridge Tech
As a out gay man and having been involved in the Gay Liberation movement, I wanted to be as open as I could be in an educational institution in the mid-1970s. I was the only out gay lecturer at Uxbridge Tech. Certainly, I don’t remember any problem with being out out to my fellow teachers in that radical Staffroom 8. I was encouraged to bring my partner du jour to any staff parties that were held and I did. Some were keen to discuss gay/lesbian issues with me. As for the students, that was a different matter.
The John Warburton Affair
In January 1975, a teacher in a secondary school in London, John Warburton, had been not rehired at the end of his contract by his school after he had answered questions in his classroom about whether he was gay or not. One of his students had seen him at a gay demonstration in Trafalgar Square in November 1974 (where I also had been) and had asked him if he was gay when they saw him again at school. This questioning was accompanied by taunting and heckling from many in the classroom.
To manage the disorder, John stopped teaching and answered the students’ questions and that was it and calm was generally restored. But the authorities heard about this and made sure he wasn’t hired back again. That led to a huge campaign organized by the Gay Teachers’ Group (of which I was a member) against both the school board and the National Union of Teachers which had not supported him, even though he was a member of NUT. He never was rehired.
Ron Peck, in 1978, filmed and directed a fictionalized account of this case called Nighthawks which, according to IMDB was:
- “Widely considered the first “commercial” or “commercially released” gay feature film ever made in the U.K., where the story was directly about gay relationships and themes, but which was not about crime (blackmail or murder), or purely stereotypical.”
Did I Come Out?
Teaching in a college to older students meant that I had more leeway than if I had been teaching in a secondary school, but I didn’t know its limits. I decided that, if I ever did talk about being gay in the classroom, it would be best if it came about because students asked me a question directly. And/or it should be in the context of whatever topic I was teaching. I didn’t want to be accused of “preaching” or, heaven forbid, “converting” the students.
Some might ask “why would you want to talk about your sex life in classes?”. Of course, I wouldn’t talk about my sex life, but about my sexual orientation. I only wanted to be able to talk about myself in the same way as some heterosexual teachers would talk about their own lives, partners and families in their classrooms.
As for my A-level classes, I don’t remember talking about being gay in the classroom. I can’t explain my hesitation, given the possibilities for it in Sociology. But outside of the class informally, it certainly came up and it certainly wasn’t a problem. In fact, my “cool” factor skyrocketed.
Given the general machismo of my Liberal Studies classes, I was less keen to move towards a discussion of my sexuality. But I began to learn that one characteristic of working class machismo is that there is an admiration for standing up for what you believe and for not caring what others think of you – that is, “having balls”. I thought that maybe that was my way in.
Another characteristic of this machismo is the ability to “have a good laugh”.
“Are you saying that you’re a practicing homosexual?”
“Wait a minute”, a student asked me one day after I had answered a direct question about whether I was gay. “Are you saying that you’re a practicing homosexual?”
“No”, I replied. “I’m getting rather good at it now.”
The class erupted in uproarious laughter. With my spontaneous response, I combined not only “having balls” but also that I could “have a good laugh”. So all that worked to me gaining their respect. My relationship with those students improved after that.
Below you can see a photo of one of those classes where I had come out – Telecom Technicians. Close to the end of term, they invited me to join them in a local pub for lunch. I thought that was so sweet. And it taught me that coming out can have a positive outcome.
Goodbye to Uxbridge
Just after starting my fourth year at Uxbridge, I received a letter telling me that I had been awarded a grant to study for my MA in Sociology at Essex University. My contract at Uxbridge said that I needed to give three months notice so I had to ask permission to be relieved from that obligation. The Principal rapidly agreed. He was probably happy to see the back of me.
My Head of Department did, though, give me a lovely letter of recommendation which I still have. I’m showing it to you because, to be honest, I am proud of it. My HOD was a very understanding and helpful boss who just let me get on with it.
With its small print, the letter is hard to read but I’ll select a few sentences:
- “Mr. Blachford took a group [of students] to a local primary school where they ran a drama workshop for ten year olds.”
- I’d forgotten that some students and I put on plays with the young pupils at a nearby school. We all had fun with that and, for me, it was a break from teaching.
- “The whole of his teaching programme benefited from his wide interest in the arts and the field of public affairs.”
- This is code meaning: if you didn’t pick up by his involvement in Drama and that he went to university to study “deviance” that Gregg is a flaming homosexual, here’s further proof – and he also goes on gay demonstrations to boot! But it’s ok, he’s still a nice guy.
- “Mr Blachford always showed a keen interest in the life of the College and took an active part in staff affairs”
- This is code meaning: Gregg was involved in several controversial union actions that really pissed off the Principal.
On that note, I’ll leave you and let you know that my next post will look at those activities with my union and its “Rank and File” offshoot with lecturers from other colleges. I worked with Bob (a gay lecturer at another college whom I’ve introduced you to before) to push our union (NATFHE) to better support gay and lesbian lecturers who were being discriminated at work by their employers. I’ll also tell you about my big speech at my union’s National Conference where the delegates heard the word “gay and lesbian” spoken for the first time! Did they support our motion? Wait and see!
Addendum: Tom Sharpe, a UK comic novelist, wrote absolutely hilarious accounts in his novels of his time as a Liberal Studies teacher to “Meat One” and “Plasterers Two” apprentices in the 70s.